The Corrupt Mr. Whitehouse

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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is corrupt and he wants everyone to know it. The Ocean State senator so declared recently in The Nation magazine. According to Mr. Whitehouse, despite warnings by conscientious lawmakers like him, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling flung open the corporate-corruption door. And now he and his 99 feeble-minded colleagues simply can’t be trusted when greenbacks start flying to independently support or oppose them. Presumably — for the booty of some slick adverts supporting his next election — “Big Oil” can depend on Senator Whitehouse to ignore his party, ideology, and constituents the next time it wants a government goodie.

On the surface Mr. Whitehouse’s assertion he’s become an empty-suit corporate stooge seems reasonable. Even without Citizens United-enabled corporate spending, Mr. Whitehouse certainly appears beholden to wealthy and corporate interests. According to the political-data clearinghouse Open Secrets, 84 percent of his campaign money comes from large individual contributions and PACs. (Small donations make up a measly 7 percent). In the past five years, his top three most generous sectors — legal, financial, and entertainment — have forked over $1.4 million. All frequently have issues before his committees: Budget, Environment, Judiciary, and Health. Judiciary alone covers bankruptcy, immigration, copyright, antitrust, and the vetting of federal judges.

The senator’s personal investments also seem untoward. He has $609 thousand invested in communications/electronic. Other large investments include the financial, transportation, health, and energy sectors — all in varying degrees overseen by his committees. Take a poll and the vast majority of citizens would likely proclaim Mr. Whitehouse appears to be on the take.

Of course Senator Whitehouse didn’t really claim he was corrupt. He would surely protest the public interest, not contributions, govern his votes. And despite the tongue-in-cheek introduction, he should be taken at his word.

But that makes his recent declarations all the more incoherent. If direct contributions don’t corrupt him how could money spent independently, as with Super PACs, do so?

That money of course goes to broadcasters, media consultants, strategists, and lots of others who are not the campaign. And it is spent for one purpose: to persuade the public. Social science literature suggests it works. More spending enables more speech, which produces better educated voters.

More spending also helps even the odds of challenging an entrenched incumbent like Mr. Whitehouse. In his last race he outspent his opponent 3:1. Evidence suggests he prefers it that way.

In the past three years — beginning shortly before his last election — Senator Whitehouse and a coterie of other left-wing senators urged the IRS to harass their ideological counterparts. In successive 2012 letters they suggested it target conservative political nonprofits and “immediately change the administrative framework” to make prosecutions easier. A year later, he groused at a Senate hearing, “no one had been put before and investigative grand jury.” Shortly afterward, Lois Lerner apologized for unfairly scrutinizing Senator Whitehouse’s political enemies.

The First Amendment-friendly Center for Competitive Politics filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee alleging the senators had “improperly interfered with administrative proceedings” and “abused the power of their office in an effort to advance their political party’s campaign and electoral objectives.” The charge gave Mr. Whitehouse no pause. This summer he urged the new attorney general to “crack down” on menacing conservative nonprofits with the federal government’s criminal-enforcement arm. Even after the IRS debacle, prosecuting supposed speech violators for what he admits are “ambiguous and permissive rules” remains a high Whitehouse priority.

In 1997, The Nation hosted a campaign-finance symposium. Legendary First Amendment lawyer and progressive Floyd Abrams participated, but his message was unwelcome: “Unhappy with who is speaking these days and how much they are speaking, liberals are promiscuously signing on to a variety of positions that simply ignore the core of First Amendment jurisprudence.”  “Is that,” he exclaimed exasperated, “what liberalism had come to?”  

His angst now seems quaint. As any prominent Democrat leader will proudly attest, progressives don’t want to ignore the First Amendment they want to abolish it. Mr. Whitehouse’s animus is palpable, calling unfettered political speech a “tsunami of slime.” Cleaning up apparently involves filling federal pens with illegal political speakers dutifully hunted down by the FBI and prosecuted by DOJ. That is real corruption.

Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter.